The Sex Dimension of Felon Disenfranchisement

face of a prisoner

On Election Day, 2004, about 5.4 million Americans, or 2.5% of eligible voters, lacked voting rights because they had been convicted of a felony. The number of such disenfranchised persons, which was 1.8 million in 1960 and 1.2 million in 1975, has increased sharply with the massive increase in incarceration starting about 1980. Felon disenfranchisement today amounts to a significant share of the electorate relative to victory margins in highly contested elections, such as U.S. presidential elections.

Among the 5.4 million felon-disenfranchised persons in 2004, men outnumbered women by an estimated 7.0 to 1. That estimated sex ratio may be an underestimate, given that the sex ratio of persons ever incarcerated in state or federal prison was 8.7 in 2001. Moreover, the sex ratio of sentenced prisoners in state and federal prisons has been above 14 men per woman for more than a half-century prior to 2004. Felon disenfranchisement surely affects far more men than women.

The sex dimension of felon disenfranchisement has generated little specific attention. A leading authority on felon disenfranchise, Jeffrey Manza and Christopher Uggen’s Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy (2006), declares:

Social and political choices, rather than the response necessitated by soaring crime rates, must play a role in any viable explanation of trends in punishment.^

What are the social and political choices that cause seven times as many males as females to be disenfranchised? Manza & Uggen (2006), like most of the prison-reform literature, remains remarkably silent about the sex ratio of imprisonment and democracy. Not surprisingly, in presenting individual stories about the effects of felon disenfranchisement, Manza & Uggen (2006) significantly over-represents women.^ The democratic disenfranchisement of men convicted of a felony is communicatively deeper than felon disenfranchisement.

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